The coming of the bloggers
At the very end of 2010 the website of The Guardian newspaper carried an article entitled 100 football blogs to follow in 2011 in which the articles author James Dart, asked rhetorically whether the forthcoming year would be the year of the blog. His conclusion was that it very possibly would be, pointing to the evidence of a range of blogs “which have grown, improved, developed and cross-pollinated in recent time” and which dealt with subjects ranging from football finance to the ins-and-outs of Slovakian football. It was a high point – even a golden age – for a format which few had heard of a decade before, so where had these bloggers come from?
The term ‘blog’ was itself coined in the late 1990s, originating from a fusing of the words web log. Early blogs were essentially journal-like posts hosted on the internet which tended to be organised in chronological order and took personal issues as their topic. In its early days blogging was something of a niche activity as in 1996 in the United Kingdom only 4.1 out of 100 of people had used the internet in the past year. This figure though would though rise rapidly to 26.8 out of 100 by the year 2000 and 70 out of 100 by 2005. Alongside this the coming of online tools, such as Livejournal and Blogger, launched in 1999, and WordPress in 2003, made creating blogs even easier.
As well as increasing in sheer numbers blogs also expanded in their range of topics; Politics, Technology, Cookery, Film, Music, Fashion as well as other sports all became the focus of bloggers and their blogs. In football blogging there were some echoes of the much celebrated fanzine culture of the 1980s where fans created DIY publications which they distributed themselves either via mail, or by selling copies on street-corners on matchdays.
The ‘zines as they were known were in their time heralded as transforming football discourse, giving ordinary fans a voice which was used to kick back against those in power, such as club owners and a hostile government and blogs such as Twohundredpercent, which focused heavily on the financial travails and mismanagement of clubs, appeared to follow in a similar vein. What really marked out the bloggers though was the sheer diversity of topics. Numerous sub-genres flourished alongside one off oddities. Blogs could be found on almost any football related topic; Football finance, football kits, football tactics, ground-hopping, music and football, football manager the game, stadium architecture, chips at non-league football grounds, and finally blogs dedicated to football in various nations and regions around the world whose entire footballing effort would have previously merited little more than a few lines in the pages of World Soccer. By the late noughties this whole scene was coming to maturity and at the top end blogs such as In Bed With Maradonna had established a clear brand image matching the traditional media for upholding quality editorial standards. Successful bloggers also gained large followings on the internet as a result of their writing. By contrast many traditional media outlets had been slow to embrace the internet and their online efforts at the time compared poorly.
Who were they?
As for the bloggers themselves, very little is known however, some US based research presents a few clues; A survey of 214 sport bloggers carried out by the John Curley Centre for Sports Journalism at Pennsylvania State University, published in 2009, found that 9 out of 10 sports bloggers were male with many being under 30. The researchers also found that the majority were college graduates, though fewer than 1 in 5 had a journalism, or communications degree. Similarly the 2011 paper focusing on eight prominent sports bloggers which cites the John Curley research found one common theme among participants was that the majority had what the authors termed ‘good educational pedigrees’, but despite this they had expressed dissatisfaction with the jobs they had just prior to their sports blogging careers. This may well suggest that for at least some blogging was an outlet for educated individuals, produced by successive expansions in further education, who felt their newly acquired skills were underused in the conventional labour market.
What did they achieve?
So what exactly was the impact of these educated, but directionless young adults? To answer the question one must look back to the recent past; Ahead of the Euro ‘96 semi-final meeting between England and Germany The Mirror newspaper ran a front page headline which read “Achtung! Surrender!” with the strapline “For you Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over” If this was not excruciating enough the headline was accompanied by pictures of Paul Gascoigne and Stuart Pearce’s heads, sporting superimposed WWII style helmets. At the same time the bespectacled, pyjama wearing character ‘Statto’ with his interest in facts and figures was singled out as a figure of derision on the popular Baddiel and Skinner show Fantasy Football League. Both cases reflected the state of mainstream English football journalism. While there were of course exceptions, it was in the main both insular and anti-intellectual. The bloggers offered the perfect antidote to this producing writing which revelled in both intellectualism and internationalism. Analytics became the new cool as bloggers discussed nuances in tactics and on-pitch performance measures – Statto was having his revenge.
Two decades on from the Mirror’s headline the mainstream of English football writing is virtually unrecognisable. The influence of the bloggers over the past decade been apparent as the mainstream has absorbed their style and content. This can be strikingly overt such as The Guardian newspaper which has entered into partnership with some bloggers to reproduce the content of their blogs via the Guardian Sports Network.
The not so good
The impact of the bloggers has however, not been universally welcomed. Bloggers can be seen to pose a challenge to both the authority and livelihoods of traditional journalists. In 2013 Barney Ronay of The Guardian foretold the death of the traditional journalist at the hands of the amateur blogger:
At a time of rare and delirious expansion, football journalism in its traditional form is also facing the spectre of its own slow death. Not because nobody wants to do it any more, but because everybody seems to want to do it at the same time. It is hard to imagine this process in other day jobs: the suburban milkman setting off on his morning rounds and finding hundreds of other people already patrolling the dawn streets on rickety box-car floats quietly leaving their own bottles of home-brewed white liquid on the shared doorsteps, brushing past him on the driveway as he stands, a little bewildered in his dairy apron, just lingering long enough to mutter something barbed about traditional milkmen being finished…
Ronay’s concerns are not unfounded. In the past few years a number of journalists have found themselves unemployed – a situation which has arguably not been helped by the competition they face from an army of amateurs prepared to do their role for little, or no financial reward. On the other hand traditional journalists have managed to defend the exclusivity of the access they enjoy to the games key figures whilst bloggers do not appear – at least for now – to be threatening the status of the elite group at the top of the sports-writing hierarchy.
A more cutting criticism can though be made that despite increasing the number of voices in circulation the football blogging movement did little to increase the diversity of those voices. Like traditional-media sports writers, football bloggers were overwhelmingly white and male. This lack of diversity arguably finds itself reflected by the fact that whilst blogging explored many niche subjects issues such as race, gender, sexuality and discrimination received little attention.
The end of blogging?
But has blogging had its day? In 2014 a crisis of confidence arose as a number of prominent football bloggers began asking whether football blogging was over. They pointed to the loss of prominent and popular blogs, to bloggers giving up because of boredom, burn-out or lack of time, and to the incursion of the mainstream into football blogging territory. Elsewhere, from across blogging genres, there were also reports of a drying-up of comments on blog posts. With few reliable statistics it is always hard to verify such anecdotal evidence and it is possible to find contrarian viewpoints that football blogging continues to be in good health, but nevertheless the feeling that something had changed was there.
For some it was not necessarily a clear-cut case of doom and gloom. Instead they pointed to an evolution taking place in blogging. This development – like that which gave rise to the blogs – was down to technological changes; Smart phones with high quality cameras and video recording capability, faster internet speeds and platforms such as Twitter and Instagram have opened a new genre which had come to be termed ‘micro-blogging’; More visual and easily digestible than traditional text-based blogs micro-blogging is far less time-consuming for its authors whilst the social-media configuration enables easy sharing and allows large numbers of people to engage in an open conversation. Unsurprisingly football related micro-blogs have proliferated ranging from football kit designs, pictures of grounds, analytical graphs, football stickers and images from old video games.
More disputed is whether such evolution is a good thing. Whilst some may celebrate the expanding reach of blogs and point to the added dimension the use of micro-blogging can provide established blogs others may regret the dumbing down and loss of quality compared to what may be regarded as football blogging’s golden age. If anything though this evolution underlines the impact technology continues to have on football writing and suggests that the future for both the bloggers and traditional journalists is far from being settled.